The company who came to Jamaica Inn had not impressed her with respect.
She wondered what was the scent of roses that filled the air, and then she noticed for the first time the bowl of dried petals on the small table behind her chair.
Then he spoke again, his voice gentle as ever, but with a new insistence.
"Why did you wander on the moor tonight?" he said.
Mary roused herself and looked into his eyes.
They stared down at her in infinite compassion, and she longed to trespass on their mercy.
Scarcely aware of how it happened, she heard her voice reply to his.
"I'm in terrible trouble," she said. "Sometimes I think I shall become like my aunt and go out of my mind.
You may have heard rumours down here in Altarnun, and you will have shrugged your shoulders, and not listened to them.
I've not been at Jamaica Inn much over a month, but it seems like twenty years.
It's my aunt that worries me; if only I could get her away.
But she won't leave Uncle Joss, for all his treatment of her.
Every night I go to bed wondering if I shall wake up and hear the waggons.
The first time they came there were six or seven of them, and they brought great parcels and boxes that the men stored in the barred room at the end of the passage.
A man was killed that night; I saw the rope hanging from the beam downstairs—" She broke off, the warm colour flooding her face.
"I've never told anyone before," she said. "It had to come out.
I couldn't keep it to myself any longer.
I shouldn't have said it.
I've done something terrible."
For a little while he did not answer; he let her take her time, and then, when she had recovered herself, he spoke gently, and slowly, like a father who reassures a frightened child.
"Don't be afraid," he said; "your secret is safe; no one shall know of this but me.
You're very tired, you know, and this is all my fault for bringing you into the warm room and making you eat. I ought to have put you to bed.
You must have been on the moor for hours, and there are bad places between here and Jamaica; the bogs are at their worst this time of the year.
When you are rested, I'll take you back in the trap, and I'll make your excuses myself to the landlord if you wish."
"Oh, you mustn't do that," said Mary quickly. "If he suspected half of what I've done tonight he would kill me, and you too.
You don't understand.
He's a desperate man, and he'd stop at nothing.
No, if the worst comes to the worst I'll try and climb up the porch to my bedroom window, and get in that way.
He must never know I have been here, or that I've met you even."
"Isn't your imagination running away with you a little?" said the vicar. "I know I must seem unsympathetic and cold, but this is the nineteenth century, you know, and men don't murder one another without reason.
I believe I have as much right to drive you on the King's highway as your uncle himself.
Having gone so far, don't you think you had better let me hear the rest of your story? What is your name, and how long have you been living at Jamaica Inn?"
Mary looked up at the pale eyes in the colourless face, the halo of cropped white hair, and she thought again how strange a freak of nature was this man, who might be twenty-one, who might be sixty, and who with his soft, persuasive voice would compel her to admit every secret her heart possessed, had he the mind to ask her.
She could trust him; that at least was certain.
Still she hesitated, turning the words over in her mind.
"Come," he said with a smile; "I have heard confession in my time.
Not here in Altarnun, but in Ireland and in Spain.
Your story will not sound as strange to me as you think.
There are other worlds besides Jamaica Inn."
His speech made her feel humble and a little confused.
It was as though he mocked her, for all his tact and kindness, and supposed her, in the back of his mind, to be hysterical and young.
She plunged headlong into her story with jerky ill-framed sentences, beginning with that first Saturday night in the bar, and then working backwards to her arrival at the inn.
Her tale sounded flat and unconvincing, even to herself who knew the truth of it, and her great fatigue made her labour in the telling of it, so that she was continually at a loss for words, and she kept pausing for reflection, and then going back on her story and repeating herself.
He heard her to the end with patience, without comment or question, but all the while she felt his white eyes watching her, and he had a little trick of swallowing at intervals which she came instinctively to recognise and wait for.
The fear she had sustained, the agony and the doubt, sounded to her ears, as she listened, like the worked-up invention of an over-stimulated mind, and the conversation in the bar between her uncle and the stranger had developed into an elaborate piece of nonsense.
She sensed, rather than saw, the vicar's unbelief; and in a desperate attempt to tone down her now ridiculous and highly coloured story, her uncle, who had been the villain of it, became the usual hard-drinking bully of a countryman who beat his wife once a week, and the waggons themselves had no more menace than carriers' carts, travelling by night to expedite delivery.
The visit of the squire of North Hill early that day had some conviction, but the empty room struck another note of anticlimax, and the only part of the story that rang with any sense of reality was Mary's losing herself on the moors during the afternoon.
When she had finished, the vicar got up from his chair and began to pace about the room.
He whistled softly under his breath and kept playing with a loose button on his coat that was hanging by a thread.
Then he came to a standstill on the hearth, with his back to the fire, and looked down upon her — but Mary could read nothing from his eyes.